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Open: 09/17/10- Close: 10/02/10 Fat Kids On Fire
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Following on the heels of the ABC Family TV series Huge, about teens at a fat camp, comes the Pipeline Theatre Company’s production of Fat Kids on Fire, a new play by the talented emerging playwright Bekah Brunstetter, also about teens at fat camp. While the TV series and the play have much in common, Fat Kids on Fire probes the darker psychology of wanting to be skinny and popular and its effects on those who surrender to that desire.

The campers in Fat Kids on Fire regularly faint under the cruel Florida sun as Nurse Joy (Blair Ross) tries to keep the campers physically and mentally healthy.  Bess (Sydney Matthews) is a chubby teen who wants to be skinny and idolizes super skinny and popular Claire (Andi Potamkin), a girl from school.  Bess arrives at camp to find that, because of her looks, in this world she is the skinny, popular girl. Immediately she acquires a boyfriend, a needy kid named Scott (John Early) whose parents own the camp yet jet off to Europe for the summer while he stays behind to “tap” the insecure girls.  While all the girls take a liking to Bess, Cindy (Nicole Spiezio), who has a more serious weight problem, talks Bess into being her roommate, and, while Cindy is the camp’s object of ridicule, the two become friends.  Soon, however, Bess is eyeing the cute new counselor Mark (Shane Zeigler), and, ill-equipped to lure him on her own, channels the skinny-bitchery of Claire.

Matthews deftly brings out Bess’s insecurities and complex personality, which is best seen in her interactions with Scott, whom she cautiously humors, and with Cindy, whom she cares about despite the jeers from the other girls at camp (Andrea Ciannavei and Megan Linde).  Early is funny as the boyfriend Scott, a character who’s probably more fun to watch than actually know in life, especially in his facial expressions as he encounters these quirky and wounded campers. He also wonderfully hints at the wounds within himself as someone always left behind.  As the mocked Cindy, Spiezio never plays the victim. Her face lights up at moments of pure happiness and provokes sympathy at moments of defeat and sadness . Zeigler also nicely plays the virtuous counselor Mark who tries to spurn Bess’s advances.

Bess’s character and story are intriguing until Bess starts talking to Claire at the end of the first act.  The second act doesn’t quite have the same energy as the first because too much time is spent on Bess asking the fantasy version of Claire for advice on how to get Mark to hook up with her. At this point, Bess becomes one-sided and shallow. While this is intended, it’s difficult to watch and enjoy, especially when it’s not quite clear what pushed Bess to behave in this way. Aside from having to deal with Scott’s advances, camp had so far been treating her well.  Either Bess feels she can now become the Claire she’s always wanted to be or she really just wants Mark at all costs.

Potamkin isn’t quite believable as a popular, bitchy girl. She’s very skinny, yes, but lacks a certain elegance that would make her more queen bee than wallflower.  Perhaps she also doesn’t seem popular because we only see Claire alone with Bess.  The popular kids seem most powerful when they have devoted followers to support them.

Another character, Bridger (Mike Steinmetz), seems out of place, although his character is meant to be.  He wears a long black coat, and rumors fly that he is planning to blow up the camp.  He’s an element of danger, but he ultimately fizzles.

Director Peter Frechette uses an interesting space to great effect, and his staging is seamless and inventive. The costumes design by Meagan Kensil and Brian Maxwell individualizes the eccentric characters and puts us right in the heat of summer, as does the set design by Ian R. Crawford, which uses chairs and crates to create the camp.

Fat Kids on Fire manages a dark yet satisfying ending, and Brunstetter’s writing is fun and original.  Stories about fat camp may be in fashion, but there’s definitely room for them all if they are told well.

Wings Theatre : 154 Christopher Street